From accounts of those who knew her, Leah Vincent was a bright girl who was full of fun. As a precocious child, she was sent to a post high school girls seminary in Israel at the young age of 16. It isn’t surprising, with those accounts, that Leah went on to obtain a Master in Public Policy (MPP) from Harvard University in her secular life. Apparently, the yeshivish family she comes from is considered fairly mainstream and not extreme in their viewpoints. She apparently has a few siblings who have gone on to college, and reportedly has a brother-in-law who is a lawyer. Why then, if other family members had gone to college, were her parents so adamant that she stay within the frum community and not pursue goals within the wider secular world?
Obviously, those of us on the outside don’t know all the specifics of what happened between Leah and her parents. However, from the vantage point of my surface view, my guess is that her parents fell into the reactionary trap of upping the ante. What do I mean by this? Simply that when a parent fears that they are losing their child, they will take an increasingly strict position on matters beyond what they would normally hold in order to stop their child’s behavior.
Those that are familiar with Leah Vincent’s family say that while they are a solidly yeshivish and frum family, they are also pretty chilled, laid back, and accepting of Jews on all levels of frumkeit. They have trouble reconciling the easy going rabbi and rebbitzin they know, to the ultra orthodox parents who yanked their daughter Leah out of her Israeli seminary and brought her home for wearing a sweater that was too tight. They have trouble imagining the compassionate torah leaders of their shul and community kicking their daughter out of their home so that she wouldn’t taint her siblings with her heretical ways.
I think that the answer is that fear leads people to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t. For whatever reasons, again we are not privy to all the details, Leah’s parents feared that she would abandon her orthodox Jewish faith. They knew they had a bright, creative, and precocious child and they fought to keep control over her curiosity. Instead of trying to keep a tight lid on a boiling pot, they would have been better off telling her, “Hashem has given you both a gift and a challenge. Your gift is your intellect and your potential to do wonderful things in this world. Your challenge is to go out into the wider world to hone your talents and yet still stay true to who you are as a Jewish woman. We want to help you navigate this path so that you fulfill your potential as both a scholarly professional and as an observant Jew.”
By trying to squash Leah’s dreams, they ultimately drove her away from the torah observant community altogether. Listening to Leah speak, I feel sadness as an orthodox Jewish woman. Sad because our community needs intelligent, compassionate, and well-spoken women like Leah Vincent. How many more women will be turned away from the orthodox Jewish community because they don’t conform to the strict societal expectations of how a Jewish woman is supposed to behave? We need to nurture souls like Leah Vincent, not drive them away because of our own expectations. Not take a harder line than we would with non-family members because having a child who is going off the derech is a bad reflection upon us. Making decisions out of fear or shame can never have a positive outcome.
I would posit that many of our “at-risk” youth who question Judaism, society, rabbanim, halachot, chumrot – those young people who are having a crisis of faith – they are among our best and brightest. Why? Because they have the ability to question. They have the capacity to think outside of the box. They have the vision to know that there is more than one valid opinion on how to do things. They have the courage to step out of line and say they don’t agree. I would suggest that those young folks going off-the derech have the capability of being the future leaders of klal yisrael. The difference between going off the derech and remaining frum depends on how they are guided, how their concerns are addressed, the freedom they are given to question, and the amount of love they receive in the exchange. As parents, teachers, rabbis, and friends, we have a tremendous amount of power to turn a teen away from yiddishkeit forever, or to broker a lasting commitment that will benefit an entire people. It’s all about perspective.